Thursday, 13 March 2014

What does UK energy look like in 2050?

This year’s IET Clerk Maxwell presentation was given by Professor David Mackay, entitled ‘Climate, Energy Arithmetic and 2050 Pathways’. David is the author of a book I have been meaning to read for quite a long time: Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air (you can download this online for free: http://www.withouthotair.com/). He was appointed as Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in 2009, making sure DECC’s policies and operations follow the best scientific and engineering advice available.

Professor Mackay has developed an online tool that allows you to explore what your future energy world could look like if you made certain choices right now and whether you would reach the national emissions reduction target of 80% by 2050 (relative to 1990 levels). The tool considers energy demand and energy supply and gives you many options to choose from: do you want to cover 20% of the UK’s land surface in bio-fuel crops? Do you want all cars and buses to run on electricity? Should all homes be insulated? Should we develop Carbon Capture and Storage technology for all fossil fuel power plants?

The lecture was less of a lecture and more of a crowdsourcing exercise, going through each of the options and provoking the scientists and engineers (and the one architect!) in the audience to share their views and opinions. Overall this was a very enjoyable and engaging evening; it was surprising how quickly the time passed for someone with an attention span as short as mine! I was deep in thought about how much work and effort we need to put in to meet these emissions targets and the complexity of the balance between supply and demand. Another topic that was briefly covered was the rest of the globe, this tool is UK based and global warming is… well… a global issue. There was talk of developing a similar global model; but this will probably take a while.

There is one key topic that will stick with me. At one point the audience discussion turned into the viability of a certain technology (I have forgotten the exact topic; it may have been electricity storage or fuel cell technology…). David’s response to this was something along the lines of ‘don’t think about if it’s realistic or not, think about what you want to see and we will worry about how to make it happen later’.

This highlights an important concept for me – crazy ideas. I feel that most people come up with an idea and then think of reasons why it won’t work and it gets quickly dropped. A better approach is to take the idea and break it down into smaller more manageable steps. Before you know it you will be in places you never imagined possible.

Here is a personal, kind of relevant example. During my two year graduate scheme with E.ON, I had to spend six months working for E.ON internationally. 90% of the UK graduates would end up in Germany, easy option since it’s a German company with headquarters over there and lots of operations. Slightly more adventurous graduates have ended up in Paris, Madrid, Milan, and various other well established E.ON offices. The goal I set myself: go where no graduate has ever gone before! The first step was communicating this to my scheme manager, Louise, luckily for me is an amazing lady who was supportive of my ideas. She set up meetings for me with a manager who was in the know about international activities. By the end of the meeting, I had three options: Germany, Italy, or one of three mystery countries that the company was thinking of expanding into. Obviously to ‘go where no graduate has ever gone before’ I had to pick the mystery option! Cutting the long story short, I ended up in an office in Istanbul with the four experienced country directors. I had an unforgettable time, learned a lot and achieved something that initially seemed difficult.

So in conclusion, when you have a few minutes, play around with the energy tool (https://www.gov.uk/2050-pathways-analysis), think about how you want the world to look in 2050 and keep coming up with crazy ideas!